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Relief from smoky conditions expected soon, UW doctor talks preventative measures

Smoky conditions

Smoke and haze obstructs Mount Rainier from the top balcony of Founder's Hall.

Nearly halfway into October, smoky conditions created from forest fires spanning the length of the Cascades has left Seattle struggling with a higher than normal air quality index and a campus hazy with smoke.

The closest active wildfire to Seattle currently is the Bolt Creek Fire, located along the northern hills of Highway 2 between Baring and Skykomish. While it is not known what caused the fire to originally start Sept. 10, the past month has seen it spread to an area of over 13,200 square miles.

Dr. Coralynn Sack is an assistant professor within the department of environmental and occupational health sciences and the department of medicine in the UW School of Medicine. She also acts as a pulmonary and respiratory disease specialist for the UW Medical Center.

“A lot of people might be experiencing the irritating effects of smoke,” Sack said. “That’s usually eye irritation, scratchy throat, maybe a little bit of headache, or nasal stuffiness. Those symptoms can be bothersome, but if you start to experience anything like shortness of breath, wheezing, worsening cough, or feeling like your heart’s racing or chest pain, there may be something more serious going on.”

Sack encouraged those who suffer from more extreme symptoms to consider wearing KN95 or N95 masks in order to help alleviate some of the problems caused by smoke.

“Even though the fit might not be perfect, it still will filter out those small particles,” Sack said.

While well-fitted KN95 and N95 masks are encouraged to fight the effects of wildfire smoke, experts note that cloth masks are not effective in filtering out these harmful particles. 

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“People who have underlying lung diseases like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease are definitely at higher risk of developing acute exacerbation or having more symptoms,” Sack said. “They should be a little more vigilant about trying not to do prolonged activity outdoors.”

While smoke from wildfires is known to be dangerous, Sack broke down why this matters and what it can really mean for the body on a critically fundamental level.

“What’s in the smoke is really a combination of particulate matter and a lot of other chemicals or hazardous gasses including some carcinogens like formaldehyde or acrolein,” Sack said. “What we mostly worry about are those extended solid particles called particulate matter — especially those really small particles which are less than 2.5 microns. Those can really bypass our body’s defenses and pass deep into our lungs or even into the bloodstream.”

The issue of wildfire smoke bleeds into a broader meteorological phenomenon occurring in the Pacific Northwest this fall. According to the National Weather Service, there has yet to be any recorded rainfall at SeaTac for the month of October. On average, the area would have already seen over nine-tenths of an inch by this point in the month.

Reach News Editor Luke Amrine at Twitter: @amrine_luke

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